After years of growing its presence in the Indian market, the Chinese tech industry ran into a brick wall in India Monday. Amid political tensions with Beijing, New Delhi banned 59 Chinese-made apps.
Who’s behind the ban, what are they saying, and what’s next? TechNode asked Chennai-based journalist Sowmiya Ashok to explain.
What Delhi says
India’s technology minister on Thursday termed the government’s surprise move a “digital strike.” The sudden ban on multiple apps including Bytedance’s Tiktok and Tencent’s Wechat comes two weeks after a violent border clash between India and China in eastern Ladakh that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers.
The Indian government has declined to link the ban to border tensions. The press note that announced the ban late Monday did not mention China or make any reference to current events.
However, on Thursday, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said at a virtual political rally for West Bengal: “We have banned 59 apps for the safety of the country and to safeguard people’s digital data… We won’t compromise on the issue of data security… We won’t compromise on the issue of national safety and security. India knows how to protect its borders and also knows how to carry out a digital strike.”
Earlier in the week, Indian officials scrubbed clean Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official Weibo page, wiping out upwards of 100 posts from the past five years.
Who made the decision?
India’s Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology ordered the ban based on a recommendation made by the Ministry of Home Affairs, India’s ministry of the interior. The IT Ministry’s press release noted that the Home Ministry’s Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre sent an “exhaustive recommendation for blocking these malicious apps.”
The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN), which deals with cybersecurity threats like hacking and phishing, had also received many representations from citizens regarding “security of data and breach of privacy impacting upon public order issues”.
What are the grounds for blocking?
The apps have been banned by the government for engaging in activities “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.” The IT ministry’s release cited a number of different reasons for the ban including concerns about misuse of data and transmitting information to servers outside of India.
“The Ministry of Information Technology has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India,” the release said.
The government said the move will safeguard crores of Indian mobile and internet users. “This decision is a targeted move to ensure safety and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace,” the release said.
How does a ban happen?
The IT Ministry invoked Section 69A of the Information Technology Act read along with a set of detailed blocking rules which gives the government powers to block access to a website or a mobile app. The government invoked emergency powers under the blocking rules, making the decision effective immediately.
Within a 48-hour period, the order has to be placed before a committee comprising senior bureaucrats from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Home Affairs, and others. Based on the committee’s recommendations, the order is either sustained or revoked. If sustained, which is the case here, companies are sent orders to comply with the blocking orders.
A senior official at the IT Ministry said that orders had been sent to various tech companies to comply with the ban. The law requires the government to send each app a formal blocking order. “This blocking order must be reasoned, and specific to each app–that is to say, a general press release cannot substitute such a specific order,” said Nehaa Chaudhari, Policy Director at New Delhi-based Ikigai Law. “The apps have the option to challenge this order in court. For it to withstand judicial scrutiny, each app’s order will need to specifically demonstrate how the operation of the app in question undermines the sovereignty and security of India or any other ground for which the app has been blocked.”
What have the companies been told?
After Monday’s press release, a legal order has not been made publicly available and individual orders to the respective platforms will likely remain confidential. It is unclear whether all of the companies have directly received blocking orders from the government. A New-Delhi based tech lawyer said most companies had received some form of intimation—a takedown order—asking them to make their apps non-functional. The companies were also told that the government will provide an opportunity for them to be heard.
A senior official from the IT Ministry said following the orders, Google and Apple have been asked to delist these 59 apps from their online stores. While the Telecom Ministry has written to internet service providers to sever connections to these apps, the official said companies have also been directly asked to make these apps non-functional.
How has Tiktok India reacted?
Amongst the first to comply was Tiktok, with more than 200 million monthly active users in India. The app blanked out on phones as early as Tuesday afternoon. “Tiktok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and have not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government. Further, if we are requested to in the future, we could not do so. We place the highest importance on user privacy and integrity,” Tiktok India head Nikhil Gandhi said in a note on Twitter.
What is still unclear?
Tech companies remain confused over the criteria for selecting the 59 apps. While downloaded versions of some apps are still available and working, others have already been blocked. From a technical perspective it is still not clear how the Indian government is going to enforce these bans.
Tech lawyers point out that in principle the ban should be temporary until replaced by a set of regulations that spell out what steps the app can take to reach compliance. Santosh Pai, a partner at Indian law firm Link Legal that advises several Chinese companies, said the duration of ban is unknown. “From a legal perspective when you ban something on national security grounds, you will expect some kind of detailed regulation to take its place going forward,” he said. “The question is, what are the safeguards and technical standards that the Indian government will like to see being implemented so that the apps can continue functioning?”
What options do affected companies have to challenge the ban?
While media reports have indicated that data security and privacy of Indians is a concern, Chaudhari pointed out that “these are not grounds on which apps/websites can be blocked in India. The nexus of privacy with sovereignty and security of India will need to be established.” Further, apps could also consider challenging the proportionality of the government’s action. “Simply put, the argument will be that this was not the least restrictive way in which the government could have acted.”
“Users of these apps, like influencers, could also explore constitutional challenges, arguing that this ban has hurt their freedom of speech, and livelihood. The difficulty here is that the individual orders to the respective platforms will likely remain confidential, so users might have to first move courts to see these orders,” Chaudhari said.